Ethical eating is not a new concept. Five years ago, Michael Pollan began talking about how the food we eat affects the health of the environment in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." More recently, in the first episode of the IFC television series "Portlandia," Carrie and Fred went to great lengths to make sure the chicken they planned to order lived and was harvested humanely.
Now a restaurant workers' organization is moving beyond how food choices affect the environment or the lives of animals that end up on the menu. The group Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United wants consumers to consider how the people making their food are being treated with the help of a 52-page manual released Tuesday called ROC National 2012 Diners' Guide: A Consumer Guide on the Working Conditions of American Restaurants.
The guide rates roughly 150 restaurants nationwide, including eateries where the organization has members. The ratings are based on a variety of sources, including restaurant workers' wages, paid sick leave, opportunities for career advancement, and wage theft and discrimination lawsuits.
Restaurants are divided into three categories in the guide: quick serve, casual and fine dining.
"It's just a very easy way for consumers to choose restaurants that put fairness in their menu," said Daisy Chung, assistant director of the ROC United New York office.
Some restaurant chains, like Five Guys Burgers and Fries, received gold prizes for giving workers paid sick days and staff promotions, as did Cowgirl in the West Village and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio's Craft Restaurants for paying hourly minimum wages starting at $5 with tips and $9 without tips. The Washington, D.C. institution Ben's Chili Bowl got a silver prize for giving paid sick days to its workers.
Paid sick days are rare in the restaurant industry. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 and $7.25 for restaurant workers who don't get tips.
"You need to sort of take care of the people who are really taking care of your food," said Barbara Sibley, owner of the Mexican restaurant La Palapa in the East Village, which also got a gold prize for providing sustainable wages and paid sick days to staff.
Others, like Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants, got frowny face icons based on legal charges filed for worker discrimination and wage theft at the restaurant's parent company, Darden Restaurants. On Tuesday, ROC United is launching a national campaign against Darden.
Judy Maeza, the general manager for La Palapa, who has worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years, said she couldn't understand the practices of any restaurant that didn't get a gold or silver prize in the guide.
"How could you not pay people for working?" she said. "And pay them when they're legitimately sick or letting them take a week's vacation? You know, all the things that any other industry takes for granted."
Maeza added that although she was in favor of the guide, she didn't know how many consumers would change their dining plans to eat ethical.
"They're not that interested," she said. "They know they want to go some place that they like for dinner. They don't think about how the kitchen employees are treated."
The restaurant industry is one of the fastest growing in the country, according to ROC United, and employs over 10 million workers nationwide. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United was formed after 9/11 to support displaced restaurant workers. Now the group has 9,000 members in nine states.